From reducing the risks of dangerous work to finding people lost in the woods to simplifying surveying and mapping tasks, a congressional mandate to integrate U.S. airspace with robotic aircraft by September 2015 has public operations excited about the possibilities.

Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aircraft systems, most people associate drones with either model airplane enthusiasts or military and counter-terrorism programs, with the latter including the larger armed or spy drones. This is because, with the exception of hobbyists and the armed forces, drones haven’t been allowed to fly in the U.S. except with special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

But the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 has the agency busy working to integrate drones safely into domestic airspace, starting with public entities. So far, the FAA has granted an estimated 600 Certificates of Authorization/Waiver (COAs) to agencies—mostly federal, police, and fire—to train operators to use unmanned aircraft.

The rules for public agencies are essentially the same as for hobbyists: No flying above 400 feet, at night, over heavily populated areas, and near airports or manned aircraft. Drones must remain in sight of operators.

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